There are few things in life that I envy. But seeing and hearing a group of high calibre musicians playing together always hits the spot. There is something magical about the relationship between a collection of instruments, in the hands of musicians of wildly differing ages, joining together to create magic for a moment in time. I find it very emotional and always wished that I was amongst them to experience that sense of oneness.
I am a great fan of the BBC Four series Transatlantic Session, now unbelievably in its sixteenth year. Its musical directors are Aly Bain, the great folk fiddle player and the multi talented dobro king Jerry Douglas. They bring together a group of Celtic connected musicians from Ireland, Britain and America...
Jerry and Aly
They all stay in an old farmhouse, deep in the highlands of Scotland, and weave their magical musical connections. At its best it is sublime. What I love about it is their overriding manifesto rule for all taking part, ‘Leave your ego at the door’, and they seem to do just that. It comes through and is an utter pleasure.
Sadly we designers cannot experience the same close creative collaboration in the moment or indeed our friends the illustrators. Theatrical ensemble actors get very close to it. But musicians have the lion's share of this special closeness. Here are two links to Transatlantic Sessions that I particularly like. Give them a whirl. The first is the delightful singer Eddi Reader singing Aye Waukin-O, with Paul Brady on backing vocals.
The second features Liam O’Maonlai, the one time lead singer in Irish band Hothouse Flowers – for whom I designed an album cover and spent a slightly bizarre afternoon with Liam in the Portland Turkish baths followed by and evening at the opera. But more of that another time.
But here he is singing the self penned beautiful heartfelt ballad Worry Not. His backing singers are Martha Wainwright Emily Smith and Mairead Mhadnaigh.
In 1984, on the recommendation of a friend, I bought a CD by an unknown band. It was the first recording on the Linn label – a state-of-the-art audio equipment company who were experimenting with a foray into recording world. The album in question was A Walk Across The Rooftops by Scottish band The Blue Nile and was two years in the making. It was a revelation to me and I played it over and over again. 26 years on and I am still enjoying it.
This was a group that had clearly laboured over their work and along with Linn’s sonic engineers managed to take the recording to another level. In the quarter of a century since the release of that first album, The Blue Nile have only produced three further albums. For me each one has been a perfect realisation of this highly individual band’s musical philosophy and has always been well worth the wait. They seem to posses absolute integrity and creative sophistication in their output and have not been tempted by trappings or the stranglehold of the precarious pop jungle and its vacuous celebrity.
What distinguishes The Blue Nile is the stunning vocal dexterity and sincerity of lead singer/writer Paul Buchannan...
His voice has incredible range, pitch perfect, even in the vagaries of live performance. A soulful and heartbreakingly tender delivery with beautifully crafted lyrics and tightly knit musical ensemble working in total sympathy. Why this band has never made it on the world stage I will never know. But the selfish part of me is rather pleased. They do have a dedicated following of clandestine fans from within the music and creative industries. They are our best-kept secret. In their 26-year history, musical genres have come and gone but their work has transcended time and style and is unique like a classic piece of design.
In an age of instant gratification it is wonderful that The Blue Nile has stayed faithful to its beliefs. The work is of an exemplary standard with a distinct personality. For those of you that might be tempted by what I’ve had to say, bear in mind they are not instant candy, but an acquired taste. But the reward is well worth the effort. iTunes has an introductory compilation album on iTune Essentials. You can also view this little YouTube film here, made some years ago.
I have often written about the voice on this blog – awareness of, its use and effectiveness. Well, over the passed week the whole issue of singers in the, shall we say, Autumn/Winter of their years came up in the media.
The octogenarian crooner Andy Williams was in town recently to plug his book and album. He performed live on the Jonathan Ross show. It was all rather tragic really – a weak quavering voice, straining to hit the high notes a million miles away from the dashingly assured, sweated clad entertainer of the 1970’s and 80’s. And this week saw the release of a Christmas album from no less than Bob Dylan...
The reviews have differed wildly but what is certain is the quality of Dylan’s voice. It is shot to pieces, sounding more like Tom Waits with an inflamed throat - and that’s being generous.
But it can sometimes work. Joni Mitchell, a contemporary of Dylan, had the voice of an angel – clear, pure and pitch perfect. A life of singing, heavy smoking and the natural ageing process has given her voice a patina of experience, which has taken it to another place. It is very beautiful, as can be heard on the album, Travelogue released in 2002 with wonderful orchestrations by Vince Mendoza
But sometimes I wish the coterie of people surrounding our singing legends would say, ‘I think it’s time to hang up the career’, leaving their legacy of quality intact for us all to cherish.
Long-term readers of this blog might remember the short film that my
sons made about global warming. Well, l thought that you might like to see this
latest offering from the pair. ‘The Day I Died’ is the music video for a new
single from rising star Just Jack. It was shot in a single day in North and East
London – the house interior used in the opening scenes is my friend’s, Tim and
Debbie who have also featured on this blog (he is the painter who lives part of
the time in Italy).
Anyway back to this little film. Apparently Elton John is a big fan of Just Jack and was instrumental
in getting actor James Nesbitt to star in film. Even Jack himself has a small
part playing one of the paramedics towards the close. It is a rather morbid
scenario for the bubbly world of pop but perhaps that is its point of
difference and will make this track a hit.
For any techies out there the film was shot on super 16mm using an
Arriflex 416. Enjoy
Well, not quite. More downloaded into my
itunes. But somehow it doesn’t sound quite so romantic. Anyway I have been
slightly obsessed with these three albums…
Thanks to Verity Sharp - the delectably knowledgeable
presenter of BBC Radio 3’s very excellent Late Junction - I was introduce to Thomas Feiner ...
– who coincidentally is a
graphic designer - one time vocalist with Swedish collective Anywhen.Back in 2001 they released The Opiates, their third and final
album. Few copies were made available and so it disappeared without trace. Until
now. David Sylvian (yes, that one) unearthed and rereleased it with additional reworking
with vocalist Feiner. What we have is a wonderfully brooding collection of
songs. Melancholic at their extremes with rich vocals from Feiner, who at time
sounds like a fusion of Scott Walker, Tom Waits and Nick Cave. But what did it
for me was the sensual string arrangements provide by the Warsaw Radio Symphony
Orchestra, achieving at times an epic cinematic landscape. It is a truly
remarkable work. Check it out for yourself re the link to Thomas above, in particular listen to the
sublime Betty Caine.
I have long been a fan of Craig Armstrong,
and indeed the arrangements on The
Opiates above are akin to Armstrong’s own work, which is probably why I
liked it so much. But Memory Takes My
Hand is Armstrong’s most mature yet and is his début classical work. Recorded
with the BBC Symphony Orchestra it was premiered last year on Radio Three. It included
Immer, a violin concerto that
Armstrong wrote for Coli Gould. A stunningly sensitive piece that resonates
with the work of Arvo
Pärt and Henryk Górecki. Lay in a Alexander position, close your eyes and
slip away into another world.
My third favorite is the beautifully
enigmatic duo Susanna Karolina Wallumrød...
And Morten Qvenild. They formed Susanna & The Magical Orchestra back
in 2002. This highly original indie group have two albums Melody Mountain and List of
Lights and Bouys. If you are a fan of Björk or Sigur
Rós then I think you’ll like this little duo. They play
around with range of interesting and unconventional instruments and sounds.
There is a terrific cover of Joy Division’s Love
Will Tear Us Apart. But check out the track Stay, truly magical.
So far I haven't mention music on this blog, this is for the simple reason that I would tend go on about it a little too much, because, well frankly, it is vital to my everyday life. Back in the summer I was invited on to Resonance 104.4FM Radio's programme, Graphic Design on the Radio presented by Adrian Shaughnessy. So if you are interested go here and you will get a feel for the kind of stuff I like - and a little about me and my life.